For the new screening of “Underw[h]e(a)re” by the artist Luca Miranda inside the program FILTRO, third edition of the DIGITAL VIDEO WALL curated by Gemma Fantacci, Generazione Critica has interviewed the artist.
Generazione Critica: Your work is eclectic, and one of the common threads running through your artistic production is certainly experimentation, starting with video games, photography and video, and including literature, as well as reenactments and remixes of other works of art. Can you tell us more about your practice and how different mediums dialogue with each other?
Luca Miranda: My practice is mainly focused on a process of observation and reflection. I am intrigued by taking a particular medium, observing it, and reflecting on what its alternative outputs might be. I do the same thing with other works, especially video games, though not in an exclusive way. For example, one of my current projects is to take works of literature (novels, essays, etc.) and implement a rewriting process that takes into account only the questions formulated within the text. The result is a re-reading composed only of questions. And this is interesting because it seems as if you can see the framework of the questions that supported the author’s conscious thinking or stream of consciousness during the writing process. I do a similar thing with other media: using elements of them, and specifically of certain works, to obtain results that question the ways, the forms, the ideologies with which they present themselves to the public, to us. I think that experimental dialogue and hybrid coexistence are the natural language of artistic production. A medium is not at its best when it is left in its context, but when an exceptional (or even confusing) encounter with another medium gives rise to new revelations and experimentation.
GC: The intervention on visual data, whether as in-game photography or video, such as machinima, is a key feature of your creative production. Another interesting feature emerging from your work is a peculiar “aesthetics of observation” that disrupts the original purpose of the videogame, turning it into building material, as Mary Flanagan would say. What is your approach towards the game environment and how does the process of observation of and in the virtual world take place? Where does the need for observation come from?
LM: I think it is necessary to underline the two starting points of my experimental work. On an experiential perspective, the video game extends – and extends – as the area from which my informal explorations start. Like the path of a peripatetic, to be precise. On the other hand, from a critical-creative perspective, my basis is undoubtedly literary: not in terms of actual literary knowledge per se, but in terms of the use of the written word as a vehicle for reflections, questions and experimentation. My practice emerges, fundamentally, from the encounter between these two aspects. I like how you spoke of “an aesthetics of observation” that throws off an original purpose. I think this definition can be applied to everything I decide to work on. The development of this process takes place through two adjacent, but different paths (or rather, culture). On the one hand, unregulated and de-canonised exploration and reflection in a playful territory always bursts out, to me, like a burning fuse that at some point reaches its destination. Perhaps without even realising it, I find myself conceiving possible reconversions of a particular action that takes place while playing a game, or the reassessment of a specific ludic mechanic: for instance, deciding to stop racing cars in the desert and start drawing esoteric shapes on sand. Obviously, I am aware of the fact that such ‘explosions’ derive from a cultural, personal and historical consciousness, although at one point in time the input may be hidden and impossible to identify. On the other hand, there is also a reflection on the concept of boarder. I refer to what the scholar W.J.T. Mitchell wrote about this term. He points out that, obviously, the idea of a border is easily associated with an image and we all, for better or worse, know that a border has two fronts, each with given characteristics (internal/external, friend/enemy, etc.). However, he points out that there is a third aspect: the border itself and the act of creating it, of defining it. Here, this is an element, an act and an attitude, that I try to explore within my wanderings in video games. The border is a material object (even if in virtual terms), but also political, ideological, not immediately recognisable. I would say that my desire to observe originates from the will to explore how much this concept of the border permeates the various structures of a videogame experience, and how it can be rethought in critical and experimental terms. These kinds of actions are not only critically conveyed, but also pose as a way to play without constraints, without following rules. Ne travaillez jamais.GC: “Underw[h]e(a)re” has a double nature: it started as a photographic project and then expanded into a video. What is the relationship between the film and the photographic medium in this work? In which way did these two media guide the visual research in the late 18th century French society represented in the video game “Assassin’s Creed: Unity”?
LM: “Underw[h]e(a)re” was created by exploring the game environment. Often, I find myself either trying to make the camera go haywire by smearing the avatar against walls, laying it on the ground – and doing other actions as the game allows – or, trying to bring the game view into shadowy areas irrelevant to the experience. This is how the work we are talking about started. At a certain point, I wondered what was “inside” the simulacra strolling on the streets: the internal consistencies of the NPC (“non-player character”) are another interest of mine. It was the moment when I discovered the difference in modeling and gender (both programmatic and by design) between characters from different social classes. I could say that the project was born as a visual documentation of a specific photograph: the medium is not primarily photographic, but the shots demonstrate the photography of a specific design and political practice, captured (or: grabbed) through a screenshot evidence. The medium of video followed immediately afterwards, even though it was already present during the collection of the screenshots. I thought it was necessary not only to collect visual information frozen in time, but also to capture how it is presented in motion and how it is integrated into a sound or noise space. Noises, environmental sounds, urban melodies are also means and data with which to critically and creatively transpose a given video game production.
GC: In the description of “Underw[h]e(a)re” you talk about its photographic production both in terms of shot and screenshot, i.e. an image of what is displayed on the screen. The concept of image and photographic practice has changed profoundly within the contemporary media landscape and for example Joanna Zylinska speaks about photography as a practice that is increasingly detached from human will and vision. In your opinion, how does this relate to in-game photography?
LM: It is an interesting point that you make, because it also opens up ontological and philosophical problems regarding the relationship that our species establishes with images. Zylinska is not wrong – perhaps because we transit more in the pictographic than in the photographic – but I wonder if we should not also consider the transformation of human vision and the technology of looking. Indeed, we cannot afford to consider human vision only in organic or biochemical terms: our vision is a model and a technological apparatus and, as such, is susceptible to modification, evolution and revolution. In-game photography comes from an overwhelmingly photographic heritage and is linked to a certain tradition of visual formats, if only in terms of our enjoyment and practice with it. For example, when taking an in-game photograph, the author of the “shot” – generally at least – stands at an agreed distance from the screen on which the subject is revealed. Of course, the screen may vary in size, but the distance ratio is adjusted to scale. This comes from conventions such as the one that started Impressionist paintings, when they led those viewing the pictorial details of the time to stand at least an arm’s length away from the canvas in order to capture the correct shapes and the most suitable frame. Thus, in-game photography contains the possibility of exploring new visual and stylistic formats, not necessarily linked to the presence of a screen: will we perhaps come across an out-game screenshot?GC: In her article “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004), Susan Sontag states: ‘To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life’. Yet, taking up Zylinska’s reasoning again, it is necessary to consider the photographic medium as part of an even more complex context in which it plays the role of ‘a medium subjected to continuous processes of mediation, only some of which involve human beings’. In a historical period in which life has become even more rooted in virtual spaces, the access to information is managed by algorithms, and Silicon Valley tycoons design new living universes (see Zuckerberg with the Metaverse), is the video game a simulated testimony of contemporary life? Or do you think it has already been playing this role for some time and we are hardly aware of it?
LM: The photographic continues to remain a key domain within the realms of the image. It changes with technological and historical evolution: the photographic becomes a composition of data rather than particles. But, in fact, hasn’t photography always presented itself in the form of data, in a certain sense? It is now accompanied by the presence of algorithms, which act both as a spectrum (of the idealised image) and as a mirror (of the idealisation of the image). I like to think of the video game as a prism – rather than a window – through which we identify connections to a potential future self, a potential self. And this ‘self’ does not only concern the individual, on a psychological or psychic level: it also concerns the forms and combinations with which environments, contexts and technologies are configured in our societies. One example among many is the avatar form as a paradigm. The video game avatar has developed with a diversity of characteristics – varying by type of game and functional mode – that have spilled over and are expanding into the marketing models and configurations of the apps and mobile experiences with which we configure ourselves every day. That’s why we can rightly fight ideas – techno-idealisms – like the Metaverse, but, all things considered, they are not so foreign to us. I think that videogames have already shown us possibilities that are several steps ahead of what Zuckerberg promised (or rather, speculated). On the other hand, what is so revolutionary or upsetting about having our colleagues’ avatars wandering around in our rooms, when it is obvious that at the moment it is only possible through physical and locomotor absenteeism?
GC: Video games and photorealism go hand in hand, to the extent that most triple-A titles released in recent years feature sophisticated photographic shooting systems that make them extremely similar to modern cameras. The so-called photo mode function often provides real-time editing possibilities, turning the game simultaneously into a photo set and an editing software. However, in the artistic production of video game photography, there is a clear desire to break free from the faithful copy of reality in order to bring out the distortions of video game culture or a criticism of contemporary society. How do you describe this sort of challenge to the hyperrealism of game spaces implemented through the photographic systems of these same videogames?
LM: I wonder if it is not rather the will to fight a sort of obscurantism given by the graphic hyperrealism, trying to reveal what is the actual “faithful copy of reality”: that is, the cultural and social distortions inherent in the contexts of videogames. A sort of inverted perspective, but it is a hypothesis. Certainly, the last decade has seen the implementation of more and more video-photo editing tools made available to users (e.g., the famous Rockstar Editor); therefore, artists have immediately identified their potential for reflective use – political, aesthetic, social, and so on. This makes me think of what was the detachment of certain photographers from practices of accurate depiction of reality. Some of them rethought the form of the photographic, others the validity of the framed subject, others still reflected on the medium, on the modalities of the medium, even on a philosophical level, rather than on the actual photographic production. Just think of Mario Giacomelli and his silhouettes, Roberto Masotti’s thoughtful abstractionism, Carlos Garaicoa’s multidisciplinary approach, Pierre Cordier’s chimigrams. But there are obvious differences that run from medium to medium, even where a direct dialogue persists. Artists who play with the medium have spectrums of the real and levels of the virtual intersecting in different ways, and the possibilities for reflection on technological tools, aesthetics and new styles are wide open.
GC: In your work you use cheats, i.e. tricks that modify the gameplay of the game, to examine the socio-economic implications of capitalist systems inscribed in the contemporary entertainment industry. Does this indicate a form of resistance? There is also a lack of mods, i.e. visual or functional modifications applied to the game. Can you explain the relationship between these two activities with regard to your practice and the choice to use only one of them?
LM: Mods and cheats have historically represented two political and functional attitudes that are in a sense opposed, yet complementary if not twinned in several of their characteristics. In the specifically artistic sphere, mods are tools for the political, aesthetic and stylistic restructuring of a video game, modifying it in order to open up a creative, socio-political discourse, or to disseminate original and thoughtful artistic properties (but the purposes are not limited to this short list). Where mods arrive ‘from outside’, after a video game has already been published, cheats are generally already integrated into the product. So: inserted a priori by a programmer or a development studio – big or small. So: code constructs that converse with the game and with the players through ideological and ideational layers decided by the developers themselves. However, even the cheat can be inserted beforehand: the historical role with which the various tools are approached therefore changes. My interest lies in the cheat because it offers possibilities of manoeuvre within the political discourse generated by the single videogame artefact. The cheat is historically used with goliardic purposes, of pure divertissement and, most of all, it can be used by anyone, whereas mods, in general, require at least a minimum of technical knowledge on behalf of the player (anyway, it can be found in some tutorials on the net, for less complex cases). As an instrument of structural recontextualisation and political reflection on the video game, the cheat has yet to be fully discovered and used, since it is the forerunner of many interesting possibilities.
GC: The use of video games in art and the resulting works, such as machinima and in-game photography, have much in common with 20th century avant-garde movements, especially DADA and the Situationist International. The video game is subjected to a process of re-functionalisation that disrupts its usual use and transforms it into something else, and this connects it, for example, to found footage, remixes, the readymade, etc. In your opinion, what is the relationship between videogames, twentieth-century avant-garde movements and the practice of re-functionalising game systems?
LM: There is a close relationship, direct or indirect, between artistic experimentation, the events of an era and the technologies available. Dada experimented with the universe of games at a time when Europe was torn apart by war, not just focusing on the rhetoric of conflict and the economic policies of the period, but making an intelligent critique of modern society and the dynamics of art production. Thus, even the artists who refunctionalize game systems are not exempt from the influences of their contexts and the information they come into contact with. It is no coincidence that at a time when military-themed video games such as “America’s Army” (2002), “Call of Duty” (2003) and “ARMA” (2006) were published, there was an artistic counterpart that unhinged their logic, not necessarily having to do with the themes of the titles just mentioned. “Velvet-Strike” (2002) used the tools of the Counter-Strike video game to disseminate anti-war messages; “Super Mario Clouds” (2002) removed all the ludically competitive elements in “Super Mario Bros”; Molleindustria made great use of the video game as a means of shrewd and sharp criticism of political, economic and social issues. The video game is a medium that more than others has the potential to implement processes of remediation of artistic practices, poetics, political texts and much more. Its nature is hybrid; its culture is omnivorous; its heritage is multilingual.